skip to main content
Americans Assess Progress Under Obama

Americans Assess Progress Under Obama

by Michael Smith and Frank Newport
Chart: data points are described in article

Story Highlights

  • Americans split on whether healthcare situation improved or worsened
  • Race relations perceived as faltering
  • More say economy gained rather than lost ground

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Asked about the state of the nation over the past eight years, Americans say the U.S. gained ground in four of 19 policy domains, and they say it lost ground on 14 and held steady on one. More Americans see progress than decline on the situation for gays and lesbians, energy, climate change and the economy. They see the biggest setbacks on the federal debt, crime, the gap between the rich and the poor, and race relations. They are divided on whether the nation has made progress or lost ground on healthcare.

Did the U.S. Gain or Lose Ground Under President Barack Obama?
I'm going to mention some issues facing the country and ask whether you believe the United States has made progress, stood still or lost ground in each during the last eight years, since Barack Obama became president. How about in terms of -- [category]?
  Made progress Stood still Lost ground Net*
  % % % (pct. pts.)
Situation for gays and lesbians 68 11 16 52
Energy 46 26 23 23
Climate change 33 38 23 10
Economy 42 20 36 6
Healthcare 43 13 43 0
Trade relations 32 28 36 -4
Situation for blacks 30 27 37 -7
Education 31 28 39 -8
National defense and military 30 28 39 -9
Taxes 23 40 34 -11
Situation in Afghanistan 26 26 38 -12
Immigration 27 27 45 -18
U.S. position in the world 30 19 49 -19
Terrorism 28 20 49 -21
Situation in Iraq 25 23 47 -22
Race relations 25 20 52 -27
Gap between rich and poor 14 34 48 -34
Crime 21 21 56 -35
Federal debt 21 18 57 -36
*The percentage saying "made progress" minus the percentage saying "lost ground."
Gallup, Jan. 2-3, 2017

These results are based on a Jan. 2-3 Gallup poll in which U.S. adults were asked if the nation made progress, stood still or lost ground over the eight years since Barack Obama became president. Gallup asked the same question about George W. Bush's presidency in January 2009 as his second four-year term was coming to a close.

The following analysis highlights key findings about some of the issues most central to Obama's presidency.

Situation for LGBT Americans Is a Clear Bright Spot

Americans saw more progress on the situation for LGBT Americans than any other issue. Sixty-eight percent believe the situation for gays and lesbians improved under Obama, compared with 16% who say it lost ground. This likely reflects the shift toward majority approval of same-sex marriage during Obama's terms in office and the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that made same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

Perceived Progress on Energy and Climate Change

Twice as many Americans say that the nation made progress over the past eight years on energy as say it lost ground. Americans were also more positive than negative about the nation's progress on climate change, though to a lesser degree. The positive view of the energy situation may reflect gas prices, which rose to almost $4.00 a gallon in 2012, perhaps making today's prices seem cheap by comparison. Shifts toward renewable energy and abundant natural gas may also be driving Americans' views. Obama also championed and helped put into effect the Paris Agreement, designed to combat climate change, although President-elect Donald Trump has challenged the nation's participation in this agreement.

More Say Economy Made Progress Rather Than Lost Ground

Obama took office as the U.S. was in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Since then, the unemployment rate has been cut in half, consumer spending has steadily climbed back to pre-recession levels and Americans' confidence in the economy has shown sizable gains. Americans appear to recognize these and other economic improvements when asked about progress in the economy over the past eight years, but only to a modest degree. Forty-two percent of Americans say the economy improved, while 36% said it lost ground. Twenty percent said there was no change.

Possible explanations for the public's tepid assessment of economic progress are that Americans clearly perceive that the federal debt (a -36-percentage-point difference) and the gap between the rich and the poor (a -34-point difference) have gotten worse rather than better. Americans are also more negative than positive about taxes (-11 points) and trade (-4 points).

Americans Split on Whether Healthcare Situation Improved or Lost Ground

Americans are divided in their views of the nation's healthcare situation now compared with when Obama took office -- 43% say the U.S. made progress on the issue and 43% say it lost ground. These views could be interpreted as a referendum on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), President Obama's signature legislative achievement. The ACA became law in 2010 and led to a seven-point drop in the adult uninsured rate.

Americans' divided views on whether the healthcare situation has improved over the past eight years underscore the general split in views of the law itself since its inception. The law's fate is uncertain as President-elect Trump and congressional Republicans have prioritized repealing it and replacing it with a new law. While Obama no doubt hopes that the law will become a positive part of his historical legacy, the public at this point clearly has a wait-and-see attitude.

Americans Say Race Relations and Situation for Blacks Worsened

Although President Obama made history as the first black president, Americans perceive that race relations suffered during his two terms. Fifty-two percent say the U.S. lost ground on race relations over the past eight years, while 25% said the country made progress. The ratings likely reflect the racial strife surrounding the high-profile deaths of black people at the hands of police during Obama's second term, as well as fatal shootings of white police officers by black men.

A separate item included in the list of 19 shows that 37% of Americans say the situation for blacks got worse under Obama, while 30% say the U.S. made progress. Twenty-seven percent say there has been no change.

Americans Negative on Foreign Relations Progress

Under Obama, most U.S. combat troops were removed from Iraq and U.S. special forces found and killed Osama bin Laden. At the same time, the Islamic State group has come to power, Syria remains in turmoil, the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan remains unsettled, and relations with Russia and China continue to be significant concerns.

Overall, 49% of Americans say that the U.S. lost ground in its position in the world over the past eight years, compared with 30% who said it made progress. Americans perceive that the U.S. lost ground in its fight against terrorism (-21 points) and the situations in Iraq (-22 points) and Afghanistan (-12 points).

Americans See Progress on More Issues Under Obama Than Bush

Americans are more positive about the nation's progress under Obama than they were about U.S. progress under Bush on eight of the 12 policy domains Gallup tracked for both presidents. This perhaps underscores the relatively stronger state of the economy now compared with eight years ago. On the economy, Obama's net score of +6 is far better than Bush's -82. In addition to the economy, Americans were more likely to perceive progress under Obama than Bush on healthcare, energy, education, climate change, immigration and the U.S.'s position in the world.

In contrast, Americans were more positive about situations regarding terrorism, race relations, crime and national defense/military under Bush than Obama.

Americans' Views of the Presidential Terms of Obama (Measured in January 2017) and George W. Bush (Measured in January 2009)
I'm going to mention some issues facing the country and ask whether you believe the United States has made progress, stood still or lost ground in each during the last eight years, since Barack Obama/George W. Bush became president. How about in terms of -- [category]?
  Made progress Stood still Lost ground Net*
  % % % (pct. pts.)
Obama 46 23 23 23
Bush 21 27 49 -28
Environment/Climate change  
Obama 33 28 23 10
Bush 28 28 42 -14
Obama 42 20 36 6
Bush 5 7 87 -82
Obama 43 13 43 0
Bush 13 33 52 -39
Obama 31 28 39 -8
Bush 28 38 42 -14
National defense and military  
Obama 30 28 39 -9
Bush 39 21 36 3
Obama 23 40 34 -11
Bush 16 35 45 -29
Obama 27 27 45 -18
Bush 14 28 51 -37
U.S. position in the world  
Obama 30 19 49 -19
Bush 12 17 69 -57
Obama 28 20 49 -21
Bush 40 20 37 -3
Race relations  
Obama 25 20 52 -27
Bush 40 31 25 15
Obama 21 21 56 -35
Bush 25 33 39 -14
*The percentage saying "made progress" minus the percentage saying "lost ground."
Gallup, Jan. 2-3, 2017, and Jan. 2-4, 2009

Bottom Line

While it will take many years to fully assess President Obama's legacy, these results provide an initial indication of how the American public sees his eight years in office. At the moment, Americans are more negative than positive on the progress made on the majority of issues tested.

Historical data are available in Gallup Analytics.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with a random sample of 1,021 national adults, aged 18+, living in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, conducted Jan. 2-3, 2017. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The economy item was asked of the full sample. All other items were asked of a randomly selected half-sample of between 482 to 539 national adults and have a margin of error of ±5 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 70% cellphone respondents and 30% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellphone numbers are selected using random digit dial methods.

View complete question responses and trends.

Learn more about how the Gallup U.S. Daily works.

Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030